Columnist Sebastian Mantilla Baca of the Ecuadorian newspaper El Comercio has been to the Galápagos Islands recently and doesn’t like what he saw–what he calls a place overrun by tourists and people bent on making a buck without regard to the damage to the environment. His piece appeared on Wednesday, May 1. We offer it here as a springboard for reflection and discussion. Mr Mantilla has left out several groups of Galápagueños who are working to improve the quality of life on the islands without harming the environment. Nevertheless, some of his observations are accurate and deserve airing.
Who owns the Galápagos?
The Galapagos Islands were declared by UNESCO in 1979 as a World Heritage Site. Famous for its extraordinary natural beauty and for being the place that led Charles Darwin to formulate his ‘Theory of Evolution’, the islands today are experiencing a fundamental dilemma: human actions are threatening the natural balance.
What are the problems? In general, the usual, only more severe: increased tourism, increased external species (invasive), constant mishandling by the authorities. If 30 years ago 20,000 tourists a year visited the islands, now we talk of about 195 000.
Similarly, there has been an increase in cruise ships, hotels and related tourism activities. Many of these activities are carried out illegally and without any control. In the case of introduced and invasive species, one just has to see what happens in Santa Cruz and San Cristobal. The introduction of animals, insects and plants brought from the mainland have completely transformed the ecosystems.
In the case of the most populated islands, there is a striking expansion of farms devoted to tourism, agriculture and livestock. There are no special skills or training required to engage in any these activities. That’s what I have seen after a couple of weeks visiting San Cristobal. One ca see rats everywhere even near the sea lions.
As can be seen, the mismanagement is evident. The management of the Galapagos National Park authorities is deplorable. Much of its action is focused on partial control of the flow of tourists and certain fishing activities. This goes hand in hand with population growth in the islands. In 1950 1300 people lived in the Galapagos, now that number exceeds 25 thousand.
And, obviously, all demand the right to work, receive services, have a place to call home, etc.. Moreover, many of the islanders believe they have the right to pursue the activities of fishing, tourism, agriculture and livestock without any control.
However, the mere fact of being born or living in the islands can not be a reason for everyone to do anything they want. The concept of “Natural Heritage of Humanity” is lyrical. but in reality everyone defends their own interests. Tour operators struggle to cram the Galapagos with tourists. Fishermen continue to operate without boundaries. The authorities strive to do the least while protecting their jobs.
The Galapagueños fight to defend their right to do as they please, regardless of the severe impact caused by the growing towns.. The ‘theory of evolution of the species’ Darwin has another chapter: The chapter of how human beings can destroy the islands. Who owns the Galapagos? Who is responsible for what is happening?
The original version of this column in Spanish can be found at the site for El Comercio.